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Monday, August 5, 2013

An unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism

On a warm June day in 2011, Nili Philipp was powering her bike down Herzog Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in Beit Shemesh, a sleepy bedroom community in the Judean hills. A pretty, vivacious mother of five and fitness buff, Philipp is what American Jews would call “modern Orthodox” and Israelis call “national religious.” She keeps a kosher home and wears a knee-length skirt and head scarf, as traditional Jewish law demands, but she is also a confident college-trained engineer, with a smartphone and high-tech sneakers. As she rode, she tried to push the anxiety she felt to the back of her mind.

The Canadian-born Philipp and her husband had moved to Beit Shemesh in 2000 for its affordability and its beautiful bike trails and hills, but also for its diversity. Back then, secular Jews, modern-Orthodox Jews, and the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, lived peacefully side by side. Philipp had loved to shop in the Haredi neighborhoods, where clothing and diapers were always cheaper. But over the past five years, as Beit Shemesh had changed, Philipp found these neighborhoods increasingly foreign and felt uneasy visiting them.

After an influx of Haredi families had poured into the city in search of affordable housing, official-looking posters cautioning women to “dress modestly” had appeared around town. Signs were now posted near Haredi synagogues ordering women not to “linger” or make noise. When she went on runs, the five-foot-tall Philipp wore her long skirt and head scarf. But despite her modest dress, on several occasions, Haredi men had cursed her and spat on her, perceiving the mere sight of a woman running as offensive to their beliefs. When she went biking, Philipp had tried wearing a skirt, but when doing so proved neither practical nor safe she switched to knee-length shorts—the longest she could find—and a short-sleeved jersey.

OAs she cycled in this outfit past a traffic circle bordering a Haredi neighborhood, she saw a modesty sign and the husk of a shopping center vandalized by Haredi men who feared the project would attract “indecent” non-Haredi customers like Philipp. Suddenly, something struck her on the head, hard. A Haredi man had thrown a rock the size of her fist at her. It bounced off her helmet and clattered to the ground. Shaken, she called for help. But other Haredi men, picking their way along the sidewalk in their black suits and brimmed hats, ignored her. The escalation—from spitting to real violence—left her terrified.

Three months later, Philipp had another upsetting brush with the Haredim. As her seven-year-old daughter, Meital, and her friends headed into their new girls’ school, they were confronted by an angry crowd of Haredi men screaming, “Shiksa” (gentile woman) and “Prutze” (slut). The Orot Banot school sat on a street between Philipp’s modern-Orthodox neighborhood and an area that had recently become home to some extremist Haredi sects. (Haredi sects differ in their degrees of religiosity; violence generally only emanates from extreme groups.) Many in the Haredi community believed the building “belonged” to them and claimed that the schoolgirls were provocative, because they wore t-shirts instead of blouses and bare legs beneath their long skirts.

Philipp was outraged that, even before the school had opened, the Beit Shemesh government—led by its Haredi mayor, Moshe Abutbul—had backed the ultra-Orthodox, warning parents that the city could not protect their children against any violence that might occur. This proved to be the case: Every day, the harassers showed up outside the school and traumatized the girls, hurling eggs, tomatoes, and bags of feces at them, but the police came only when summoned. Screaming Haredi men were merely redirected to adjacent streets. No arrests were made.

Finally, in December of 2011, one of Philipp’s friends, Hadassa Margolese, allowed her eight-year-old, Naama, to be featured on a nationally broadcast news program. Naama was filmed sobbing and clinging to her mother’s leg, too terrified to go to school. On the same program, a Haredi man proudly defended his right to protect himself from these young schoolgirls and their brazen sexual provocation, declaring, “I am a healthy man!” The segment electrified the nation, and although no prominent Haredi rabbis publicly condemned the protesters, they disappeared overnight.

Read more at: Newrepublic

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